By Ciara Walker Williams
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Four years ago, Martesha Johnson made history when she was sworn in as the first African American and second woman to become Nashville’s Metropolitan Chief Public Defender. When Johnson reflects on her journey to that achievement, she credits her beloved Tennessee State University for playing a role in her success.
“TSU has always been in the backdrop of my life,” says Johnson. “I couldn’t be from Nashville and not have a love for the school.”
She shares that her mother, Jacqueline Johnson, is a huge football fan, so they would attend games at TSU. That was just the beginning. While at Whites Creek High School, she attended TSU’s Upward Bound program where she recalls staying on campus, attending class, and going on trips to places such as Niagara Falls.
“I would have attended college anyway, but I didn’t enjoy school going into high school,” says Johnson. “The Upward Bound program taught me about being a better student, going to college, and further exposed TSU as a front runner for me.”
Johnson says she applied to several institutions, but TSU rewarded her academic performance with a Presidential Scholarship. She waited to declare a major, but knew she wanted to be a Sophisticated Lady in the distinguished “Aristocrat of Bands,” like the coordinators who coached her high school majorette team.
She started with general education courses and electives to explore her interest in investigative journalism, but a pre-law class taught by attorney Julian Blackshear sparked her interest in law – the rest is history. In addition to Blackshear, Johnson fondly remembers others at TSU who inspired her along her journey – some even before she started.
“Before I made it to TSU, I was inspired by Ms. (Mary) Love and Ms. (Rosa) Hudson who were the directors of Upward Bound,” says Johnson. “Also, I can’t forget about Ms. Judy Gentry who was the coordinator of Sophisticated Ladies. She was a tough coach, but she cared and was like a mother to us.”
After graduating in 2005 with a B.S. in Political Science and minor in English, she went on to live out the University’s motto: Think. Work. Serve. Johnson attended the University of Tennessee Knoxville College of Law and was thoughtful about the type of law she wanted to pursue by exploring her options through internships.
“TSU afforded me every opportunity to excel as a student and paved the way for me to attend law school,” says Johnson. “I didn’t know I wanted to go to law school because I wasn’t exposed to lawyers growing up. Attending TSU let me know that I can do anything.”
During her second year of law school, she served as an intern for Nashville’s Metro Public Defender’s Office and knew immediately that this work was her calling.
“If you’re charged with a crime, you’re quickly painted as a criminal. I wanted to work where people are seen as more than that,” says Johnson. “Everyone is worthy of being treated with humanity and dignity, and that’s what I saw lawyers at the Public Defender’s Office doing.”
After completing law school, she worked as a volunteer at the Public Defender’s Office until she was hired as Assistant Public Defender in January of 2009. For nearly a decade, Johnson held several leadership positions in the office and represented thousands of low-income people – advocating for them to be seen as more than a criminal. It all led to her running for Chief Public Defender.
“As tough as this job is, I can’t imagine another role for me as a practicing lawyer,” says Johnson about her calling to serve.
Her faith, team, and clients fuel her motivation. “Many clients come in at the worst time of their lives and I have the opportunity to represent them, educate them about their case, and advocate for change,” says Johnson. “Seeing the hardworking people on my team serve as a lawyer for people who can’t afford it otherwise, fight to make changes, and speak out against injustices related to race and mass incarceration inspires me to keep going.”
As she looks forward to a second term, Johnson says her goals as Chief Public Defender have evolved. She’s thankful to have a “seat at the table,” but is more moved by figuring out how to get “meaningful work done,” referring to deep-rooted disparities that need to be changed.
“I want to continue empowering the community to be engaged in important issues, create a pipeline for women and African American lawyers, and ensure that the PDO is well-resourced so that we can hire, empower, and retain more soldiers in the Public Defender’s army,” says Johnson.
Her thoughtfulness, work, and service have not gone unnoticed. Since becoming Chief Public Defender, the National Business Journal has recognized her in their 2020 40 Under 40 feature, 2021 Women of Influence, and 2021 Best of the Bar. She was a part of UT’s inaugural 40 Under 40 and recently elected 2022 President for the National Bar Association.
She wears many hats, but always makes time to enjoy her 11-year-old daughter Jacari, two-year-old son Jax, and fiancé, Derrick Moore, who is also a TSU alum and co-founder of Slim and Huskey’s Pizza Beeria.
Johnson hopes that her journey inspires students to walk in excellence and let their light shine. She encourages them to utilize all resources while on campus and connect with alumni in their field upon graduation.
“I believe you can get everything you need from an HBCU,” says Johnson. “The network of HBCU graduates is so immense and anyone who has graduated should open their door and hearts because that’s what we do. That’s why HBCUs are extremely important.”
Thinking back, she shares a message to her younger self: “Be kind to yourself. You’re in for the hardest, but most rewarding journey ever. If you stay the course, real change can come.”
TSU proudly salutes alumna Attorney Martesha Johnson during Women’s History Month.
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Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a premier, historically black university and land-grant institution offering 39 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs, and eight doctoral degrees. TSU is a comprehensive research intensive institution with a R-2 Carnegie designation, and has a graduate school on its downtown Avon Williams Campus, along with the Otis Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville, Tennessee. With a commitment to excellence, Tennessee State University provides students with a quality education in a nurturing and innovative environment that prepares them as alumni to be global leaders in every facet of society. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.